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New West Daily Roundup for June 14, 2013

What’s making headlines in the New West today: authorities suspect a person and not lightning caused the devastating Black Forest fire; a new study argues wolves don’t impact the Yellowstone elk population; a look at regional business trends, and the Yellowstone Club is back in the news — the gift that keeps on giving.It’s been a rough couple of years for Colorado Springs, with fires last summer to the west of town in the Waldo Canyon area and now a large fire in the Black Forest area. So far 389 homes have been destroyed, with two people killed and 38,000 inhabitants impacted. Rain is expected later today, which should provide some relief, but officials say what happens today should determine whether the fire expands or retracts: thunderstorms would help, but the winds associated with any storm will not. The Colorado Springs Gazette is providing regular updates of the fire here.

Officials say a human was most likely for the start of the fire: with a lack of thunderstorms in the area in recent days, it’s highly unlikely lightning was a factor.

From our sister site, Yellowstone Insider: a new study from the University of Wyoming indicates that drought, and not the presences of wolves, has caused population declines among greater Yellowstone ecosystem elk herds. The study tracked interactions between wolves and elk in the Park and the Sunlight Basin and concluded that they had no impact on the reproductive levels of the elk. The more likely explanation for the declining reproductive rate: drought, which is lowering nutritional levels for the elk. From the story:

The findings were published in the scientific journal Ecology Letters. They’re based on multiple years of observation by Middleton and his colleagues at the Wyoming Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit — a U.S. Geological Survey program housed at the University of Wyoming in cooperation with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. Middleton and colleagues used state-of-the-art GPS collars and firsthand observation to track the interactions of the Clarks Fork herd with wolves from the Sunlight, Hoodoo, Beartooth and Absaroka wolf packs in 2008, 2009 and 2010. The detailed movement data on both wolves and elk allowed the researchers to identify each time one of the collared elk encountered a collared wolf.

The study’s key finding is that even though elk varied widely in their encounters with wolves, those that encountered wolves frequently were not less fat — or any less likely to be pregnant — than those that rarely bumped into the predators. This finding differs from some previous studies that indicated wolves influence elk behavior strongly enough to contribute to regionwide declines in calf production.

“Elk respond to wolves, but less strongly and less frequently than we thought,” says Middleton who, for three years, closely followed the Clarks Fork elk herd west of Cody, along with the wolf packs that prey on it. “We found that wolves influence elk behavior, but the responses were subtle and — over the course of winter — did not reduce body fat or pregnancy. Our work indicates that the effect of wolves on elk populations is limited to direct predation and doesn’t include so-called harassment, stress and fear, which have been proposed as additional indirect effects on prey populations.”

The declining elk population in Yellowstone has been a well-documented phenomenon; arguing about the impact of wolves on elk has been an active topic on New West over time, and we suspect this study won’t satisfy the folks who condemn wolves for, well, being wolves.

Tim Blixseth and Montana tax officials have been in bankruptcy court before U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Bruce Markell in Las Vegas over an attempt by the Montana Department of Revenue to pay $57 million in back taxes. Why Nevada? The state says the proceeds of loan fraud ended up in Nevada-based trusts. From AP:

The state maintains Blixseth, a resident of Washington state, owes the hefty tax bill on a 2005 loan he diverted from the Yellowstone Club, a luxury ski and golf resort he founded near Yellowstone National Park in southwest Montana.

Blixseth has said the state’s action against him is politically motivated and legally flawed. He wants the case thrown out….

Beginning in 2005, Blixseth diverted most of a $375 million loan made to the Yellowstone Club to himself and then-wife Edra Blixseth. They used the money to buy luxury estates around the world, a pair of jets, cars, furniture, art and jewelry.

Blixseth, once regarded as a billionaire, now has an estimated $230 million in assets.

One goal for us here at New West is to more heavily cover the economic scene in the region, particularly when it comes to good jobs and sustainable businesses. Todd Wilkinson has a great overview of the business climate in Bozeman and the region for the Christian Science Monitor. Money quote:

“The Internet removed geography as a significant obstacle that formerly prevented out-of-the-way places from being active players in the New Economy,” says Gianforte. “I think this is the future.”

Gianforte’s successful venture, and his passion for the outdoors, helps explain why the Mountain West is now one of the most robust regions in the United States. Drawn by the area’s natural amenities, a new generation of entrepreneurs and professional service providers, many of them well educated, is moving into towns like Bozeman and other scenic communities across the West.

From Kalispell, Mont., near the Canadian border, down the spine of the Rockies to places like Durango, Colo., and Taos, N.M., and over to Flagstaff, Ariz., they are adding an entrepreneurial dynamism to the region, a phenomenon first identified by analysts with the Federal Reserve banks of Kansas City and Minneapolis who track economic barometers.

Photo of the Black Forest fire by Plonk264 via

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